The place where the people of Salem, Massachusetts, hanged “witches” seems to have been almost willfully forgotten.
“The amazing thing was that this site has been known multiple times in Salem’s history,” says Salem State University history professor Emerson Baker. “But there seems to be a collective amnesia.”
Five years ago, Baker was recruited to a team assembled to find a place called Gallows Hill.
That name haunts some 1,000 documents left behind from the Salem Witch Trials. Clerks from the time record Gallows Hill as the place where accused witches were hanged. But they didn’t include details about the hill’s exact location.
Turns out it’s behind a Walgreens. In an abandoned jungle of barren woods and trash.
“You can see that it’s been used as a place where homeless people will camp,” Baker says, as he trudges through dry brush. “It’s kind of forlorn.”
In the 1600s Gallows Hill was just outside the walls that protected Salem. There’s a rocky outcrop about halfway up called Proctor’s Ledge. (It’s named for the man who once owned the land who, incidentally, was an ancestor of Salem Witch trial victim John Proctor.) If you stood on Proctor’s Ledge in the 1600s, people could see you for miles.
“We know that there’s a woman all the way down on North Street, which is really way down there,” Baker says, standing on the ledge and pointing into the distance. “She was a nursemaid to a baby that had just been born and there’s a family reference to her while she’s looking after the baby, changing the diapers, that she observes the executions from way down there.”
Baker and his team had to rely on accounts like that because they didn’t find any bones or artifacts here. Luckily, another historian had collected many of the eyewitness testimonies 100 years before. His name was Sidney Perley — and he should really get the credit for finding Gallows Hill, says another team member, Marilynne Roach.
"Perley was a lawyer. And apparently when he had some time on his hands in the courthouse, he would go and read the deeds and the wills from the very beginning,” she says. “And he must’ve read them all.”
Perley made diagrams to show where eyewitnesses were and where they might have been looking. The modern team searching for Gallows Hill essentially confirmed Perley’s findings using modern mapping technology. Roach says there’s power in knowing where the hangings happened.
“Being in a spot where something happened, especially where something important, you get a connection. You missed the event, but you’re there. The way people feel on Civil War battlefields,” she says. “The place becomes a monument to the people.”
That was Perley’s goal in the early 1900s. Even as debate continued about the exact location, Perley concluded the hangings happened on the hill that’s now behind the Walgreens. At Perley’s urging, the city of Salem bought the land.
“We’re standing right here on land that’s been owned by the city of Salem since 1936,” Baker says. “They purchased this specifically to be a memorial place for the witches.”
But that obviously didn’t happen, perhaps because, for a long time, Salem was reluctant to embrace its macabre past.
“They want to forget this as much as they can. This is a point of shame and humiliation,” Baker says. “I think it’s only been in the past few decades that Salem has really come to grips and embraced that heritage.”
Salem has made the most of its brutal history. Now it’s a tourism spot people visit from around the world. But Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll is careful to say that’s not what the city intends for Gallows Hill.
“We want to make sure we’re paying homage to those victims in the right way. Make sure this isn’t a crazy tourist trap,” she says.
The announcement of an official identification of Gallows Hill was timed strategically, Emerson Baker says, so officials would have time to put money for a memorial in the city budget. This is an opportunity for the people of Salem to heal, he says — to hold themselves accountable, and continue to learn lessons from the witch trials that still apply today.
“If you take that 17th century witch and swap that for the modern day terrorist, you understand the difficulty that people in Salem had there then where they new that everything that they loved and cherished was in danger,” he says. “And they’re not quite sure how the best way is to protect it, without destroying the society with its freedoms and liberties, that they had created.”
The people of Salem were spurred by fear and greed to persecute innocent people. If we do all we can to recognize how wrong they were, even now, Baker says there’s a chance we won’t make the same mistakes.
A version of this story first appeared on WGBHNews.org.
Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.